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Voice of Real Australia: Life aboard the Aurora Australis, the only Australian-made Antarctic icebreaker

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Australis launch Carrington Slipways Newcastle 18 Sept 1989. PHOTO: AAD

Australis launch Carrington Slipways Newcastle 18 Sept 1989. PHOTO: AAD

The only Australian built icebreaker might soon leave our shores.

The RSV Aurora Australis was built in Carrington Slipways upriver from Newcastle, in NSW's Hunter region.

The ship was launched in 1989 and since then has served the Australian Antarctic program for 30 years.

Orange Roughy, as it's affectionately known, helped Australia make its mark in Antarctica. It facilitated advancements in oceanography, climate science, marine research, glaciology and conservation including the management of krill fisheries.

There was a push to preserve the ship as a floating museum and function space based in Hobart. But the ship's owner, P&O Maritime Logistics, was granted an export so the ship could be sold overseas.

"The decision-making process regarding the future of Aurora Australis is ongoing. POML has been approached by a number of interested parties from around the world," a spokesperson said.

One report claims the Aurora has been gifted to the Argentine Antarctic programme and will leave the country before the end of the year. But this report could not be independently verified.

On the latest episode of the Voice of Real Australia podcast, I spoke to Australian expeditioners, seafarers and shipbuilders about their experiences on board the Aurora Australis.

In their downtime aboard, the Aurora crew and passengers would play board games, watch movies, write journals and emails, play instruments, bird watch, whale watch and take up photography. And just like Aussies on dry land they loved to have a barbecue.

View from AA in Newcomb Bay off Casey 2017. PHOTO: Elise Roberts AAD

View from AA in Newcomb Bay off Casey 2017. PHOTO: Elise Roberts AAD

"It's about -8 [degrees], but you're having a barbecue, eating a steak sandwich. And you're just watching icebergs go past. It's quite surreal," operations and shipping officer Leanne Millhouse recalled.

But long journeys can put a strain on relationships. As a voyage leader, Krill specialist Stephen Nicol appreciated the need for passengers to let off some steam. On one voyage a snowball fight broke out after snow collected on the helideck. Stephen was watching from the bridge.

"The captain then looked at me and he said, 'you know what you've got to do'. I said, 'what?', He says 'you have to go down there and you have to let them beat you up'. So I put on my outdoor gear, I went down and everybody took out their frustrations on me," he said.

In 1998 the Aurora suffered an engine room fire. Seabird ecologist Barbara Wienecke was asleep in her cabin when the fire alarm went off.

"It is really hard to comprehend that this is actually not a dream and it is really happening. We are miles from absolutely everywhere. It is in the middle of winter in Antarctica and your ship is on fire," she said.

The fire was eventually put out using halogen, and no one was injured. A temporary fix saw the icebreaker sail back to Hobart under its own steam.

AA hits fast ice off Davis V1 7 Nov 2019. PHOTO: Simon Payne AAD

AA hits fast ice off Davis V1 7 Nov 2019. PHOTO: Simon Payne AAD

Ship Master Gerry O'Doherty explained Aurora doesn't break ice like a hot knife through butter, the specially designed bow rides the ice and pushes it downwards and snaps the ice underneath it.

"It can make just a thunderous crack, like a continuous banging noise with one crack after the other. It's quite exciting. We often get people up on the bow just to experience that sort of shaking and thunder that occurs when we're doing it,' Gerry said.

The Aurora Australis is being replaced by the Romanian built RSV Nuyina. The new icebreaker is almost ready for deployment but the final testing phase has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Aurora is sitting idle at Princes Wharf in Hobart, awaiting its next adventure.

Hear more stories from the Aurora Australis in Episode 4 of Voice of Real Australia podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts. Tell us what you think on our Facebook page. Everyone has a story to share, get in touch at voice@austcommunitymedia.com.au

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This story Life aboard the Aurora Australis, the only Australian-made Antarctic icebreaker first appeared on Newcastle Herald.